ATHENS — For five years, Joe Cox looked forward to taking over Georgia’s offense. By the time his first start since 2006 had ended, he was dreading the fallout.
The feel-good story turned to panic for many Georgia fans after watching Cox, who had been a benchwarmer the past three seasons behind Matthew Stafford, struggle to lead the Bulldogs’ offense in a 24-10 season-opening loss to Oklahoma State, and when the smoke cleared, Cox knew the questions would follow.
“After the game, me and Joe were the only ones in the locker room, just talking how people are going to be talking, and I was like, ‘Joe, don’t worry about that,” wide receiver A.J. Green said. “‘You’re going to be fine. Just don’t worry about what people will be saying about you.’ He just had a little comment, but Joe doesn’t let that stuff get to him.”
Knowing the focus would be on his performance — 15-of-30 passing with two turnovers and a number of poor throws — Cox accepted blame. He went through the locker room and stopped to talk to nearly every player who remained.
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He consoled Georgia’s first-year starters on offense and reminded them there was still a long season ahead of them.
He patted the defense on the back for a job well done and apologized for not handling his role in earning a victory.
Cox took his lumps, and he vowed to do better.
“He’s a tough kid, mentally,” coach Mark Richt said. “He was in the locker room ... encouraging them for the future. That’s the good thing about Joe.”
While critics expressed concern this offseason about how Georgia’s offense would overcome the loss of the rocket-armed Stafford, who departed a year early and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the Bulldogs’ coaches and players instead focused on Cox’s intangibles: fiery leadership, accurate passing skills and intricate knowledge of the playbook.
After his debut as the new starting quarterback, however, Cox knew he hadn’t lived up to the expectations fans had.
“You want to come out and show everybody how hard you worked and show everybody how good you are,” Cox said. “It’s not a good feeling when it doesn’t happen, especially in that first game. You want to come out with a win, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s a pretty disappointing feeling.”
The offense mustered 257 yards, the lowest output for the Bulldogs in nearly two years. While the running game had its moments, Richt said the passing game was problematic.
The wide receivers struggled, with only Green totaling more than 6 receiving yards. The pass protection by the offensive line was poor at times, leading to a costly fumble by Cox after being sacked by Oklahoma State’s Shane Jarka. The receivers and tight ends had several drops in key situations, and Cox was slow to release the football and failed to hit several receivers in stride.
“I can only speak for myself, but it got to the point where I felt like a lot of people were pressing, and when stuff wasn’t happening, we were trying not to have a really bad play,” Cox said. “People were worrying about not making a mistake, and you can’t play that way, and I was one of the guys doing that.”
It wasn’t exactly the calm, cool, collected on-field management fans were expecting, but tight end Aron White said the blame shouldn’t be placed entirely on the quarterback.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t get it done, but I don’t think that’s any reflection on Joe’s leadership,” White said.
It was a sentiment echoed by numerous Bulldogs in the wake of the team’s first 0-1 start in 13 years. In fact, rather than blame Cox for the sluggish start, many applauded his dedication to the team.
For three days before the game, Cox was battling flu symptoms and was held out of Georgia’s final practice of the week. He took a separate flight from the rest of the team the day before the game, and Richt said Cox wasn’t feeling well Saturday — although the quarterback refused to reveal the extent of his health woes, even to his coaches.
After the game, however, it wasn’t a virus that had Cox feeling sick. It was his performance.
But rather than lament the loss, Cox quickly turned to the philosophy he has employed the past five years. He looked to the future.
“He didn’t get down in the dumps about it,” tailback Richard Samuel said. “He understands that the offense as a whole didn’t get the job done. He brought the team together and said, ‘This is what happened, and this is where we have to improve.’”